The Bohemian Experiment

A Walk in the Woods in The Age of Loneliness

Posted by beckert10 on July 28, 2009

I’m a day’s walk in any direction from civilization.  In South Korea, one of the world’s most densely populated nations, that’s no small feat.  I’ve come to (relatively) rural Gangwando province, about a four hour drive east from Seoul, to escape the capital’s über urbanity.  The vista I’m currently taking in declares that goal a success.  I look out over a seemingly endless stretch of mountains filled with trees just beginning to show autumn colors.  There’s not a trace of humanity in any direction.  In fact, I haven’t seen another person since setting out on the trail the previous morning.  Perhaps that’s why I feel unsettled.  Life in Seoul demands acclimating to boxy, minimalist apartments and crowded streets with motorbikes, cars and buses roaring inches from one’s face.  By comparison, this place is eerily serene.
What I feel now, though, is not the sense of uncertain foreboding that is common to being deep in the forest.  It’s not that untold things could be lurking just out of sight.  Rather, it’s the feeling that nothing is.
I may have to get used to it.  That’s because it’s quite possible these are the early days of the Age of Loneliness.

Biologist E.O. Wilson introduced the term The Eremozoic Era or the Age of Loneliness.  He argues this new era will come on the heels of a developing mass extinction of life on Earth, the sixth in the planet’s history.  The difference is that the current such trend is largely due to human activity.  Wilson claims the loss of species, if it continues unchecked until the end of the century, will leave Earth biologically impoverished.  The Eremozoic Era will see a planet that is home not to billions of species, but merely billions of humans.  It could be a fitting end for a species who acts as if this were already true.

The overall rate of extinction is difficult for scientists to pinpoint.  Some species are more susceptible to climate and environmental changes.  Others are too small to be accurately accounted for.  Still, conservationists generally agree that species are disappearing up to 1000 times faster than before the arrival of Homo sapiens.  Our exponential population growth, appetite for natural resources and climate change-which by itself may eliminate 20% to 30% of species before the end of the century-has made it difficult, if not impossible, for anything other than our own species to survive.

Beginning in the 1960s, South Korea transformed itself from one of the poorest nations in Asia to one of the richest.  This transition also resulted in a shift from a rural to an urban society.  Sprawling apartment-block cities, dams, freeways and industrial complexes replaced much of the countryside.  This development and the resulting air and water pollution have had severe effects on wildlife.  DMZ Forum, an advocacy group based in South Korea, estimates that 14% of bird species, 23% of freshwater fishes, 39% of mammals, 48% of reptiles and 60% of amphibians are extinct or severely threatened.
Environmental degradation has also come in the form of deforestation.  By the end of the Korean War, 80% of the nation’s forests had been damaged or destroyed.  Beginning in 1962 the government began a project to reforest the nation.  It’s been largely successful to the extent that South Korea has regained a verdant look and alleviated erosion and flooding problems.  However, these new forests are largely conifer monocultures.  The diverse forests they replaced led to the disappearance of habitats for many species.

I stop for lunch under a thick grove of trees.  Where I sit doesn’t look so much like a forest as a tree plantation.  These woods were once filled with bears, leopards, wolves, foxes, deer, antelope and Siberian tigers.  The disappearance of the tiger from a peninsula that inhabitants boast is shaped like one is an especially acute irony.
I open my Guide to Korean Wildlife.  It shows nearly four hundred species of birds and a wide variety of mammals such as deer, shrew, badger, bats, martens, pika and wild pigs.  During my time on the trail all I’ve encountered are a few chipmunks and a handful of birds.  There seems to be about as much biodiversity here as there is at a park in Seoul.  I’m forced to wonder if the guidebook is lying or completely out of date.  It could be a symptom of the difficulty of compiling data on species.   Just how many animals remain is a difficult question to answer.  Another tricky one is: if there are still animals and they can’t be found this deep in the wilderness, then where have they gone?

A very likely answer is the DMZ, which has emerged as one of the world’s most unexpected nature reserves.  The Demilitarized Zone is more widely known for another distinction.  About 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, it serves as a buffer between North and South Korea and is the most militarized border in the world.  A total lack of human activity has made it a remarkable green zone.  The DMZ has abundant biodiversity, more than any other region in the nation.  97.4% consists of forest and grassland. Partial surveys confirmed about 2,700 wildlife species, including 67 endangered—30% of all South Korean endangered species.  One of the only significant populations of the Asiatic Black Bear anywhere in the wild is thought to make its home in the DMZ.  Two of the world’s most endangered birds, the White-naped and Red-crowned cranes, use the space as a wintering ground.  Some scientists have even reported finding traces of leopards and tigers.

The DMZ is an accidental version of what conservationists are creating to try and stave off a mass extinction. Habitats of great biodiversity are being singled out as conservation “hot spots” because their destruction would cause the extinction of many species. Experts’ logic is that the most species can be saved at the lowest cost.
Also, specific species are being targeted. Larger and more publicly appealing animals such as the Giant Panda and Sumatran Tiger receive significant funding and thus greater protection.
Both approaches are understandable but also present new problems. One is that climate change will alter migration patterns. When this happens it’s likely animals will move out of protected green zones and into inhospitable areas. This means saving species isn’t as easy as live and let live. It will require a complete lifestyle change to drastically reduce carbon emissions.
Also, what will come of all those life forms not deemed cute or symbolic enough? It’s an easy choice to save a tiger….but a tiger beetle? Choosing to only save only the plants and animals that we feel a connection to would usher in not only the Age of Loneliness, but indeed the Age of Uniformity. Nature in such a state would be, well, unnatural.

Korea’s small size makes it particularly vulnerable to the problems facing a developing world.  It is crowded, polluted and largely devoid of biodiversity.  But it may not be unique in this regard for long. The country could very well be a microcosm of what the planet will look like in the future: sprawling megalopolises separated by countryside that only supports a handful of species.
In particular, Korea is an example of the price paid for a lifestyle upgrade.  By transforming itself into a wealthy nation it subsequently suffered a poverty of species.  While this is not a foregone necessity, it is certainly the trend the world over.  Where people prosper almost everything else dies.
The DMZ provides a startling example of this in reverse: where no people are, nature flourishes.  The area is like a post-apocalyptic, Allen Moore version of the Garden of Eden where an animal occasionally sets off a landmine.  It shows that if species are to have a chance, humans must be kept out.  The fact that a place primarily known as a postmodern symbol of human aggression and paranoia has turned into a haven for nature’s regeneration offers a strangely hopeful message.

Humans face a problem more profound than that of any generation.  Tackling it requires first asking: does nature matter?  It perhaps seems a trifling question in a world where millions of people are starving and a global economic crisis looms. However, the answer will go a long way towards describing human values.
Many experts have offered arguments for saving biodiversity in terms of human needs. Biologists estimate that only 10% of species on Earth have been discovered. All those undiscovered organisms could provide the basis of new medicines. Also, there are the billions of dollars of free ecosystem services provided by nature. The Amazon rain forest is productive to the tune of about $100 per hectare.
Such figures sound impressive but they miss the point. Thinking of everything in terms of human prosperity is the reason the planet is dying. What’s needed is a complete paradigm shift. A generation or two without a serious effort to reverse the current extinction trends could very well be enough to seal the fate of the following generations as the first to inhabit Earth during the Age of Loneliness.
But certainly not the last.  Humans will survive the Eremozoic Era.  Homo sapiens are remarkably adaptable.  Our efforts in finding everlasting joy haven’t proven quite as successful.  Do we need nature to be happy?  Not necessarily.  Happiness, though, relies on a connection with something larger.  The key question for the Age of Loneliness is how easy that will be from the confines of a planet re-engineered to meet the needs of only one species.

The afternoon is fading and I pick up my pace.  As I round a corner the trail widens and there is a rocky outcropping to my left.  I set my pack down and take a moment to enjoy the scenery and catch my breath before the day’s final push.  As I’m looking around I spot something on the trail.  It’s a pile of scat.   It looks like it was made by a good-sized carnivore.  I feel a tingle of excitement.  Could it be from a bear or a big cat?  The encounter serves as a sobering reminder of what it may be like to live in the Age of Loneliness, an age where a turd is the most compelling thing one finds in the forest.

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5 Responses to “A Walk in the Woods in The Age of Loneliness”

  1. Hmmm, cool stuff, I kind of agree so I am still interested in this.

  2. Dana said

    This is fascinating and disturbing. (Followed your link from David’s post at TNB.)

    • beckert10 said

      Thank you. I often worry that places like Seoul and Hong Kong are eerie, depressing portals into how our entire world will look at some point in the future. The third mall from the sun.

  3. editor said

    Very interesting…I’m fascinated (and deeply saddened) by the concept of the Eremozoic….

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